In the midst of harvest, Minnesota winemakers find themselves with a whole bunch more fruit to pick from.
Earlier this month a U.S. District Judge ruled that a law requiring Minnesota wineries to use a majority, or more than 51%, local fruit in their overall wine production was an unconstitutional barrier to interstate commerce, favoring Minnesota’s economic interests over those of other states.
While Minnesota wineries are now legally able to produce wine from a palette of fruit grown around the world with no holds barred, winemakers report that consumers may not see much change to the variety of wines that will be sold in local tasting rooms.
Minnesota wineries have built a reputation for wines produced primarily from cold-hardy hybrid grapes which are uniquely developed to thrive in the growing conditions of the upper Midwest. Many of these varieties have been produced by, or in conjunction with, the University of Minnesota.
“Most customers want to know what we grow here,” said Tami Bredeson, owner of Carlos Creek Winery.
Bredeson believes that lifting the 51% requirement could be a catalyst to raise the quality standard for the production of wines — and, with fruit grown from Minnesota.
Fruit from the Northern tier
Many Minnesota winemakers are not eager to bring in bulk fruit from the East or West coasts as a result of the 51% rule being lifted.
“It’s not like the floodgates are going to open, and all of these wineries are just going to make wines from California fruit. I believe that we are proud Minnesota winemakers,” said Nan Bailly, owner and winemaker at Alexis Bailly Vineyards, in an interview with KARE 11.
Bailly was one of two Minnesota winemakers involved in initiating the lawsuit along with owner and winemaker Timothy Tulloch of Next Chapter Winery.
As for what may change in the wine production at Next Chapter Winery? “Not too much,” chuckled Jackie Brockway, events and tasting room manager at Next Chapter Winery, and Tulloch’s daughter.
Brockway has seen the demand for wines shift for weddings and events in recent years from Chardonnay to one of their most popular blends, “Marry Me,” which consists of 75% Minnesota grown fruit including Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc and Brianna, finished with 25% Riesling from Washington.
For Forestedge Winery located in North-central Minnesota, even the hardiest of grapes are not generally not hardy enough to grow for wine production. Forestedge specializes in wines that are produced from fruit other than grapes such as cassis, chokecherry, aronia, and more.
“We are very happy with [the court’s] decision. We will continue to look for and use Minnesota fruit where possible” said Steven Twait, owner of Forestedge Winery.
“We struggle finding sufficient quantities of a number of fruits in Minnesota. The change will allow us to pursue additional fruits and see what wine we can produce from them,” Twait added.
Great wine starts in the vineyard
A fundamental rule in winemaking acknowledged around the world is that you can’t produce exceptional wine with mediocre fruit.
Many Minnesota wineries do not grow all of the fruit necessary to meet the volume demand of their wine production. To supplement what they grow, they source fruit from other grape growers.
The overturned rule requiring at least 51% local fruit posed a dilemma: winemakers had to buy fruit from Minnesota growers in order to meet production demand and stay within a majority of fruit sourced from within the state.
As a result, the price of fruit could have been based on supply and demand as much—or possibly even more than—quality.
A potential impact of lifting the requirement to source local fruit could be driving down the price of locally grown grapes, since Minnesota winemakers won’t have to buy them by law. This could push growers to focus on producing higher quality crops.
“[Now], grapes are going to have to sell on their merit, they will no longer sell because it’s legislatively mandated,” said Bredeson.
“People who do a good job will always get their crop sold,” said Les Curry, in an interview with the Mankato Free Press. Curry owns a vineyard in Minnesota that produces grapes that are sold to local wineries Chankaska Creek and Indian Island.
The ruling in Minnesota could have implications in other states with similar laws including New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, who could now face challenges to their restrictions.
Federal wine label laws
For curious consumers wanting to be knowledgeable about what’s in the bottle or to support local agriculture, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has federal regulations stipulating how some terms can be used on a wine label surrounding the origin of the fruit.
Regions can adopt rules that are more stringent, but not looser than, these federal requirements:
State or County – 75%
If a state or county is listed on the label, federal law requires that at least 75% of the grapes come from the named state or county.
AVA, “American Viticultural Area” – 85%
An AVA is a location established under federal law, and at least 85% of the grapes must come from the named region. The wine must be fully finished in the state in which the AVA is located.
Minnesota has two AVA’s: Alexandria Lakes AVA and the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA, (a quad-state AVA including parts of IL, Iowa, MN, WI).
Estate Bottled – 100%
Federal law requires that 100% of the fruit must be grown, crushed, fermented & finished on the property.